Consciousness and Other Feats of Legerdemain

As you may know from an earlier post, my unofficial position is that I am nothing more than a brain in a jar, and that all of reality is a construction of my subconscious designed to mask the horrors of the real world.  So when I see a blog post like this, I assume my subconscious is trying to send me some kind of message about the nature of consciousness.

If you were too lazy to click the link, the relevent quote for me was this:

The most important (and significant) finding is that a person’s brain has already made decisions before the person actually becomes aware of having made them. You probably think that your brain has made the decision maybe a half or one second before you become aware of it, but a study in 2008 predicted that people make a choice approximately 10 seconds before they become aware of it.

The conceit of the post is that because we are not consciously making decisions, free will is an illusion, nothing more than a comforting story we tell ourselves to alleviate the horror of being hurtled headlong through life by a force we cannot control.  With all due respect to the blogger (who seems a lovely and intelligent lady) I beg to respectfully disagree.

I think the misunderstanding come from our perception of the nature of consciousness.  We believe that our consciousness is the heart of who we are, the very essence of our being.  And in some ways that might be true.

But consciousness is not the heart of thought.  Rather consciousness is the method by which we become aware of thought.  This, I believe, is crucial: consciousness is the mind’s way of looking at itself.

Think of it as a mental mirror.  You look in the mirror and you see an image of yourself.  The image is accurate, but it’s not real.  It’s only a representation of what you look like.  Consciousness work the same way.  The only problem is, we walk around with consciousness mirror held out in front of our mind for two-thirds of the day.  Every waking moment we experience the sensation of seeing what we are thinking, and so we gradually become unable to separate the vision in the mirror from reality.

But that nagging ten second delay between the moment we make a decision and the moment we become aware we’ve made a decision shows us the truth.  The seat of consciousness is an inward looking eye.  And just like our outward looking eyes it tricks itself into believing that what it is looking at is real.  What what our outward eyes are seeing is nothing more than a pattern of light-waves.  Is this nitpicking?  Well, yes and no, and here is where the discussion gets tricky.

At this very moment I can look across the room and see the Christmas tree I need to take down so that I can stop sweeping needles up off the floor.  In my mind I have no doubt that it is real.  If I went across the room and touched it, I believe I would knock even more dry needles onto the floor.  But in a very real sense, the tree that I see and the actual physical tree I believe is sitting across the room have no physical connection whatsoever.  The tree I see exists because my mind interprets light-waves that bounced off the tree a tiny fraction of a second ago as a representation of the tree.

Maybe you think I’m still splitting hairs, so I’ll use a more dramatic example.  Go outside and look up at the sun.  Because of the time it takes for light to travel through space the image you’re seeing is nine minutes old.  Which means that if the sun disappeared at this very moment, you would not see it vanish for nine more minutes.  Perception and reality are not the same thing.

And this is, in a large way is the nature of the link between our consciousness and the rest of the mind.  The consciousness believes that the decision happened at the moment it became aware of the decision, because that’s how our minds are wired to see the world.  That’s why movies like The Matrix and Inception can play so well on our minds, because for a moment at least they can open our eyes to the tricky nature of the connection between perception and reality.

But only for a moment.  Because, knowing you might be a brain in a vat, knowing that your consciousness isn’t actually making decisions, knowing the sun is nine minutes ahead of what you see…none of that really matters.  I know it doesn’t matter to me.

I know the sun is nine minutes ahead of what I see, but it doesn’t affect my fundamental perception of the world in any way.  I still look up and say “There’s the sun.”

I acknowledge the fact that I may be nothing more than a brain in a vat dreaming to itself, but that hasn’t stopped me from writing this blog post for all of you lovely projections of my subconscious out there.

Life, as they say, goes on.


If you have an interest in topics like this, I highly recommend you read three books:

The first is I Am a Strange Loop, by Douglas R. Hofstadter, which is a treatise on Hofstadter’s ideas about the mind and soul, as well as a wonderfully in-depth explanation of the perceptual nature of reality.

The second is Saving the Appearances: a Study in Idolatry by Owen Barfield, which deals quite thoroughly with the divide between perception and reality.

The third is The Raw Shark Texts by Stephen Hall, which is essentially a fictional treatment of the concepts of the first book on the list.  Think of it as a literary counterpart to The Matrix, only better.

And since this is the end of the year, I want to send a big old thank you, to all of you out there who read this collection of the stuff that gets caught in the grease trap of my mind.  You may only be projections of my subconscious, but you mean the world to me.


2 responses to “Consciousness and Other Feats of Legerdemain

  1. Awesome blog – great job! It was very interesting to read and although you may disagree with me… That’s totally fine with me as long as I can inspire people to think (and how much out of free will did you write this post? After all, you were influenced by external stimuli – in this case my post, lol :p)

    I’ll be back!

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